Feb. 12, 2005
by David Kopel
Which Denver media noticed the Ward Churchill story first? The winner, by a wide margin, was Westword.In 2002, the magazine briefly reported on the publication of Churchill's now-famous essay Some People Push Backin an issue of Green Anarchymagazine.
In February 1994, Westworddetailed the bitter political divisions in the radical Indian community, noting that the national American Indian Movement accused Churchill of falsely claiming to be part Indian. The article observed that Churchill is "A part-time painter who lost the ability to sell his work as 'Indian art' after a 1990 federal law required Indian artists to prove their ethnic authenticity . . ."
Westwordquoted a spokesperson for then-University of Colorado President Judith Albino, stating CU lawyers were investigating the charges that Churchill had obtained his Indian Studies job by making a false claim about his ethnicity: "From our end, we need to determine if the position was designated for a Native American. And I can't answer that right now." (Churchill wrote to Westwordand denied that the president's office had initiated an investigation, but Westwordrefused to retract its story.)
In August 1994, Westwordwrote about the highly charged political atmosphere at the University of Colorado, where white scholars were being discouraged from writing or teaching about topics involving racial minorities; Churchill had accused a CU white religion professor of "neo-Nazi sentiments" because the professor wrote a book arguing that much of what currently passes for traditional Indian spirituality was actually borrowed from whites.
Among the weblogs, the best coverage of the Churchill controversy has been in View from a Height (http://www.jsharf.com/view), which has reprinted the full text of a 1996 essay in American Indian Quarterlyby University of New Mexico Indian law professor John LaVelle. LaVelle accuses Churchill of scholarly fraud regarding federal Indian law and Indian tribal history, and of deliberately citing sources (such as CU professor Patricia Limerick) for the opposite of what the sources really said.
The Denver daily newspapers were very slow in getting around to the issue of scholarly fraud - even though that issue might decide Churchill's fate; it is far easier, legally, to fire a tenured professor for fraud than for offensive comments.
The first newspaper article to address the scholarly fraud issue was written by Rocky Mountain Newscolumnist and CU law professor Paul Campos (Feb. 8). Campos gave readers the Web address for an article by Lamar University professor Thomas Brown, who accuses Churchill of using false citations to fabricate a tale that in 1837 the U.S. Army deliberately infected Mandan Indians with smallpox.
Besides Campos, the Denver columnist who has done the most to advance the story - rather than merely comment on it - is The Denver Post'sDiane Carman, who provided historical perspective by telling the story of a CU professor from the early 1950s who was fired for allegedly supporting communism (Feb. 3).
During the first two weeks of the Churchill story, the Postwas amazingly desultory in its coverage, and produced very little new information. Indeed, the Postdid not even tell readers about an astonishing news nugget in its archives: a January 1987 Poststory in which Churchill admitted that he had briefly taught bombmaking to the Weather Underground (a domestic terrorist group). That fact was brought to the public's attention not by the Post,but first by the Boulder Daily Cameraon Feb. 2 and then by KHOW's Dan Caplis and Craig Silverman on their Feb. 9 talk program. As of this writing, the Poststill hasn't mentioned it.
The radio pair have done superb work on the Churchill controversy; among their contributions are playing excerpts from Churchill's CD, Pacifism as Pathology,in which he explicitly urges his audience to perpetrate more 9/11-type attacks in the United States.
Finally, on Thursday, the Postshowed how much it can accomplish when it tries. In "CU prof's writings doubted," the paper offered an excellent summary of the fraud accusations by professors Brown and LaVelle, as well as defenses of Churchill by his academic allies. The only deficiency of the Postarticle was that it did not realize that LaVelle's charges against Churchill are set forth in much greater detail in a 52-page article in the Wicazo Sa Review,which argues that Churchill has perpetrated academic fraud in six books and 11 essays. (The Wicazoarticle, which, be aware, takes some time to open, is at http://lawschool.unm.edu/faculty/lavelle/allotment-act.pdf).
The Boulder Daily Camera,meanwhile, has also been somewhat passive on the Churchill controversy. An exception was the Camera'sTuesday report on complaints from relatives of Churchill's late first wife that Churchill had misrepresented some aspects of her biography, and that the biography had been formally denounced by Canada's Assembly of First Nations.
Over the course of the controversy, however, the Rocky Mountain Newshas, on the whole, devoted far more resources to it, and the results show. The News,but not thePostor theCamera,has investigated Churchill's supposed Indian ancestor (who turned out to a white man who was an Indian-fighter). The Newsalso gave a voice to people whom Churchill may have attempted to silence: former Churchill students who allege that their grades were reduced because of personal or political retaliation. In the editorial section, theNewshas informed readers about Churchill telling an audience to help Hawaiian natives by breaking the kneecaps of tourists in Hawaii.